Ted Leo was too busy turning 30 last month to realize that punk rock is for kids. He must have forgotten that juvenile lyrics about a girl, or being vaguely depressed, or equating American presidents to Hitler, sung over unimaginative guitar pounding and basic beats, are what sell these days. And it sure is a good thing he did, because otherwise he and his band the Pharmacists wouldn’t have made “Shake the Sheets,” a simple but intensely driven album.
Leo, an indie-rock hero with 15 years of service to New York’s and DC’s rock scenes, finally got a bit of mainstream recognition last year from 2003’s “Hearts of Oak,” playing shows like the Siren Music Festival at Coney Island, and even appearing on late-night MTV2 with the single “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” But Ted Leo is far from a household name, which is a pity: He is the hardest rocking man in show business.
Ironically, though, “Shake the Sheets” is more like today’s pop-punk than any of the Pharmacists’ prior albums, simply by virtue of its simplicity. Leo has toned down the pretentiousness in his lyrics and music for which he has become known. For the latter, this is perhaps not the best choice — His normal range of East Coast, punk-influenced mod-rock suffers slightly in the simplified form.
The narrowed focus of his guitar rock falls in a Bermuda Triangle (along with the Strokes’ “Room on Fire”, the Clash’s “London Calling”, and Flogging Molly’s “Swagger” at the vertices.) The electric guitars sing and twang, the beat drives and Leo’s Elvis Costello-inspired vocals are masterful, yet the 11 tracks on “Shake the Sheets” float just on the verge of uninspired.
Luckily, the Pharmacists’ sum-of-influences rock is, in this case, merely a vehicle for Leo’s lyrics, which are intelligent and well-written enough to make the musical uniformity more than forgivable. “Shake the Sheets” looses much of the pompous vitriol of his prior lyrical work, leaving smart and clever songs with an oddly hopeful theme. In contrast to the band’s musical changes, it’s quite an improvement.
The title track, for example, expresses a desire to “take it to the President” and “sweep the Halls of Arrogance” and yet Leo later proclaims in the track: “I respect the process, I respect the rules.” The message isn’t exactly traditional “punk,” but it is certainly more productive than punk’s implied solution to self-disenfranchisement. The song is essentially an anthem about working within the American system for change.
“Roll out and make your mark. Pull on your boots and march,” he sings later.
Yet Leo, using lyrical manipulation beyond the understanding of mere mortals, somehow avoids evangelism. The track is the most hopeful rock song since Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” except even disaffected hipster-wannabes can admit to liking it. And the rest of the album is significantly subtler: “Little Dawn,” for example, could be interpreted as the hopeful allegorical centerpiece of the album — or as a latter-day “Roxanne.”
“Shake the Sheets” does not break new musical ground, for Leo or for indie-rock, but it is still more than listenable. Ted Leo shines as a lyricist, perhaps more so than usual, and the Pharmacists, though they try valiantly, can’t match his talent. The album has a refreshing political message (for the genre, at least), and also provides a self-reflective lesson in rock and roll: If you’re smart and cool, you’re never too old to rock.